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Another of New Orleans’ music notes goes silent

13th November 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Wendell Eugene’s long career found him blowing trombone with Louis Armstrong and decades later with Kermit Ruffins as well as with a host of noted musicians during that long span. Renowned for his ability to hit the high notes and his powerful sound, the New Orleans native was a much-appreciated staple on the traditional jazz and brass band scenes. Wendell Albert Eugene died on November 7, 2017 at the age of 94.

“His playing was just the best,” declares trumpeter/vocalist Gregg Stafford who, early on, worked with Eugene when the trombonist was with trumpeter Teddy Riley’s Brass Band. More recently, Eugene had become a regular member of Stafford’s Young Tuxedo Brass Band.



“He had a very distinct style of his own – something that all of us try to achieve,” Stafford continues. “When you heard the horn, you knew it was him. He was a tailgater and he was very powerful in the upper register. That sound of his was his sound.”

Stafford describes Eugene as being the last of the second generation of traditional jazz trombonists who came up under early pioneers such as Jim Robinson and Louis Nelson. “Freddie Lonzo is probably the last of the real, true tailgate trombone players in New Orleans,” Stafford notes. “He was fortunate enough to worked with Wendell and Frog Joseph—nobody plays like that anymore. Freddie was blessed enough to hear that.”

“He was playing in a brass band when I first started,” Lonzo recalls. “I used to follow him around just listening to him and talking to him. He was a phenomenal trombone player – strong and powerful. I couldn’t figure out where he got his sound – he was a little guy.”

There were also a number of “firsts” in Eugene’s music career. He performed at the first Super Bowl in New Orleans, the first Jazz Fest, the first French Quarter Fest and at the first (and only) World’s Fair where he was a member of pianist/vocalist Harry Connick Jr.’s band.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Eugene had been a part of trumpeter Wendell Brunious’ entire life – he was even named for the trombonist. Brunious’ father, trumpeter John Brunious Sr., the father of eight children, came up and was friends with Eugene. “Wendell asked my daddy, ‘What are you going to name this baby?’” says Brunious relating the story he’s undoubtedly heard many times. “‘I don’t know, I have so many children. Well name him Wendell after me.’ Every time I would see him (Wendell) he’d say, ‘Boy, you better be glad your father named you after somebody so good looking.’”

“He was a wonderful guy,” Brunious says warmly of his namesake. “He was a wonderful father. He walked with a mail bag for 30 years or better to take care of his family. That’s a man, that’s a father.”

“He was a well-studied trombone player,” Brunious continues remembering that when he was a kid it was “almost an assignment” by his father to learn the solo that Eugene played on the tune “Margie.” “At the end he went all the way up to high G on the trombone.”

“He was always one of those older musicians who was willing to help younger musicians and give you a word about the business and how to carry yourself on stage as well as off stage,” Stafford says. “He was neatly dressed, shoes shined and very proud of who he was and what he was doing.”

“He would always tell me, ‘Young man, keep your day job because this music business is kind of funny at times. Make sure you get you an education.’ He always talked about how he enjoyed working as a letter carrier and that all that walking made him strong and healthy.”

Eugene, who became a member of the musicians union when he was 15, began working as a letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office in 1947. This came after his discharge from the U.S. Navy where he was recruited to play with the Navy’s Marching and Concert Bands. In 1943 Eugene was invited to play with the great Louis Armstrong at a USO show. According to friends and family, it was an experience he’d never forget.

Almost 60 years separates that memorable date from when he recorded “Basin Street Blues” with Armstrong admirer Kermit Ruffins on the trumpeter’s 2002 release, Big Easy. “Man, let’s get Wendell Eugene in here,” Ruffins remembers thinking during the time. “You know me, I love the older guys and the old style. It’s hard to find anybody doing that right now – the high notes that he used to do and all that stuff.”

In between, Wendell Eugene hit the streets and the clubs with some of the finest bands and leaders in the world – the Olympia and Onward brass bands, drummer Paul Barbarin and banjoist Papa French and many more. He was a regular at the Palm Court with trumpeter Lionel Ferbos and continued to perform with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and Andrew Hall’s Society Jazz Band.

Fortunately for us all, Wendell Eugene was active on the jazz scene past his 90th year. The continued presence of this talented, warm and influential man linked another generation to a style of trombone that hopefully will be carried into the future.

“He was good people,” declares Lonzo, who helps perpetuate Wendell Eugene’s tailgatin’ style.

This article originally published in the November 13, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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